SIKESTON -- A year ago at this time, J.R. Bizzell thought the only baseball he would be playing in college would be in his dorm room on a PlayStation.
But the lure of the real thing proved to be too appealing for the 2005 Sikeston High School graduate.
After leading the Sikeston Bulldogs to a second straight district title and a sixth straight 20-win season last year, Bizzell figured that would be the last time he'd lace up the cleats on a baseball diamond.
But after receiving a phone call from the Rhodes College baseball coach before school started last fall, Bizzell decided to give it a shot as a walk-on player for the Division III school.
It was a decision he would not regret.
Bizzell's performance this spring with Rhodes surpassed everybody's expectations, including his own, as he became a first team all-conference selection as a second baseman in the highly competitive Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, which has 10 teams.
Bizzell helped lead Rhodes to one of its best seasons in school history, tying the school record with 28 wins while taking third in the West Division and qualifying for the postseason conference tournament for the first time in school history.
Bizzell batted in the No. 2 spot in the order, batting .300 in 41 games. He had seven doubles, three triples, 21 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.
He was named the Rookie of the Year on the team and also received the Gold Glove Award, given to the top defensive player on the team. Additionally, he received the third most votes for team MVP.
Not bad for the 2005 first team all-state infielder.
But his fall season didn't go quite as planned as he experienced kidney stone-like symptoms that derailed most of his season.
"I got a call one week before I went down there and they heard that I played baseball," said Bizzell. "I got down there and got sick and had to come home for a week. I went back and then the last week of the fall I showed them my stuff and played good ball and showed I could start at second base."
Bizzell only played in two games in the fall, both in the fall tournament at AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds Triple-A team.
His first action actually came on the mound.
Although Bizzell never pitched in high school, he proved to be effective on the collegiate level.
"I went down there saying, 'any way I can get on this field I'm going to try to get on there', so I told them I could pitch," said Bizzell, who was also a first team all-state soccer player at Sikeston.
He entered the game with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on second and third and nobody out.
Bizzell promptly retired all three batters he faced as Rhodes eventually won the game in the bottom of the 10th inning.
He then started the next game at second base and collected two hits.
"That's what got me going with the team where they saw I could play," said Bizzell. "I worked three or four weeks with the pitching coach there. He really got me throwing a good two-seam fastball and a slider. I was throwing it pretty hard. Once you get on the mound in a big stadium like that in a clutch situation, it was pure adrenaline."
Bizzell came back for the spring season and won the starting job at second base.
"I was really just wanting to keep my spot at second base," said Bizzell. "I did have a kid right behind me that was an upperclassman that was trying to beat me out at second base. I just wanted to do my job and know my role."
And he passed the test with flying colors.
"My numbers were down from high school, but I was in a different role," said Bizzell. "In high school I was supposed to lead off and get on base and score runs. Now I was put into the role of moving runners over and working deep into the count and hitting a lot with two strikes."
Bizzell also said that the talent level in the SCAC is just as high as you'd see in higher division baseball.
"The only reason there's a difference is the number of scholarships that are awarded," said Bizzell. "Every pitcher throws from 89 to 94 miles per hour. The talent level is unbelievable in D-III ball. I know when I was in high school, I looked down on D-III baseball. I was like, 'who wants to play D-III baseball?' But now that I'm there I'm like, 'who doesn't want to play D-III baseball?' You really get a chance as a freshman to walk on the field and play a major role which is something I wasn't aware of."
Bizzell, a pre-med major, even saw his grades increase after he started playing ball.
"Academically I actually did better in my spring semester than I did in the fall semester because it really made me set a schedule up and know what I had to do all hours of the day," said Bizzell. "It actually increased my grades, having that set schedule."
Bizzell, now 19, has grown an inch since high school and added 10 pounds to where he is now 5-foot-8, 155 pounds. The extra size can't hurt as he prepares for the upcoming fall season.
In the meantime, he can reflect on what turned out to be perhaps the best decision he's made since going to college.
"It was a great experience," said Bizzell. "It really renewed my passion to play the game. I enjoyed every minute of it. Anybody that has a chance to play any type of college baseball, from JUCO to D-I, should do it. I really enjoyed it and had a blast every minute of it."